President Joe Biden has taken a foreign policy approach that includes his vision of a return to world leadership. His statements about the US position in the world order were read as a departure from the policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who showed a less desire for hegemony and was known for his constant criticism of the liberal world order but nevertheless did not hesitate to implement his slogan "make America great again", especially in the trade competition with China. However, there is confusion -- in both cases -- about understanding the limits of global leadership that the United States seeks.
What is it like to lead the world?
Leading the world entails showing power, domination and influence around almost the entire globe. However, shifts in U.S. foreign policy do not indicate this, even those who kept arguing that the power of the US is unparalleled have now become more hesitant in a world that is heading towards multipolarity. This is all the more evident in the Middle East against the backdrop of a changing U.S. landscape and a withdrawal that may be inevitable in the coming decades, after Washington used to be in control of the Middle East agenda— the region which has been dominating over the US foreign policy that was consistent with its commitment to the security of the region since the 1950s.
The United States now finds itself in a similar position to Britain in its decline stages as a great empire in the aftermath of World War I. The Arabs were less confident of a settlement after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, as the Turks -- their old ally -- were looking for new alliances, and Russia’s emerging Bolsheviks were threatening European balances.
Apart from the time and historical variable, the United States has dissatisfied allies who feel uncertain and concerned about its foreign policy in the region. This applies to the Kurds, who are turning their attention to understanding with Russia -- which has never been seen as an ally -- after feeling abandoned by Washington in Syria. So is the shift in the position of strategic and historical allies such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey — countries that form one of the most important U.S. coalition networks in the region and around the world, and is a key pillar of U.S. hegemony over the Middle East; as talks have come about the importance of economic and development partnerships with China.
The problem becomes even greater when talking about its opponents. For example, Iran itself is a dilemma for U.S. hegemony, but when it comes to Tehran's comprehensive regional economic partnership with Beijing, the challenge for Washington is increasing, especially since it encompasses various aspects and areas (economic, political, military and technological). The same applies to the Syrian file, in which Russia took the political and military initiative and prevented the United States and Western countries from supporting structural changes in the Syrian political system, ignoring former U.S. President Barack Obama's warning in October 2015 that the air raids in support of Assad are going to stuck Russia in a “quagmire and it won’t work.”
Unlike the United States, Russia and China seem to be aware of what they want to do in the Middle East, and they aspire to penetrate as much U.S. hegemony as possible that has been going on in the region for decades and now declining as the United States rearranges its priorities with regard to the region's conflicts and simply abandons the dominant role. It is a policy that, to US leaders, is justified due to the reduced centrality of the Middle East in exchange for directing political and military weight to where its competitors are geographically present, particularly in the South China Sea, as part of the U.S. strategy to restore regional balance with Beijing, a policy formulated under the administrations of three U.S. Presidents (Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Joe Biden).
U.S. Strategic pillars in decline
It is important for US leaders to realize that as much as the Middle East is central to U.S. foreign policy, it is similarly important to China today. Beijing views the region as a strategic area serving its political, economic and military expansion besides global aspirations, approaching them in quiet, thoughtful and sustainable steps. It values strategic partnerships with many countries in the region, particularly with U.S. allies, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Turkey. Unlike the United States, which adopts a preferential and conditional policy according to its own standards, China has a balanced relationship with the countries of the region.
For the latter as a superpower seeking to lead the world, its relations with the countries of the Middle East serve its global agenda, allowing it to show off its military power, demonstrate its ideology, revive its economy and enhance its international stature. This is known as "strategic fulcrum," a concept used to understand the behavior of superpowers in supporting the complex structures of their relationships that serve in their competition with other superpowers, or, according to Professor Xu Jin, "a state's pursuit of its main objectives through another."
Accordingly, China's insistence on expanding in the Middle East is due to Chinese President Xi Jinping's vision of his country as world leader. It seeks to change the rules of the traditional world order politically and economically through its large "One Belt, One Road" project, a range of land routes and sea lanes whose success means controlling the world trade. The Middle East is the main focal point of this project, however. As the goal becomes more urgent for Beijing, its first foreign military base was established in Djibouti in 2017, the "controversial" endowment with Iran has been signed, and it is investing heavily in seaports.
What is simply happening is that China is re-engineering the concept of "strategic fulcrum," by rearranging international relations away from the liberal and democratic politics that established the current world order. The success of its development and economic project in the Middle East and other global regions would end the United States' global leadership capabilities.
At the same time, China’s policy in the Middle East is a microcosm of its international policy, particularly in the South China Sea. Therefore, the U.S. focus on containing China in its territory may be a sound bet if we assume that it is only regionally active. Discussions in Washington and in research and intellectual centers continue to talk about whether China can be considered a global power or an emerging power. However, it is an equivalent or close to the strength of the United States— economically ranked second in the world in terms of its $14 trillion GDP for 2019 besides that analysts estimate that it may exceed the United States economically in 2030, while in terms of military power for 2021, according to Global Firepower website specialized in classifying the armies of the world, China is third after the United States and Russia.
Therefore, the US failure to assess the size and capabilities of its opponents becomes evident. For example, when former U.S. President Barack Obama used Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 to describe it as a regional rather than a global power, he did not realize that Moscow might expand on the world stage from a minor actor to a major after its military intervention in Syria in 2015. Studies agreed that the steps taken by Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Middle East had enabled him to build military, diplomatic and economic assets that had elevated his country's global standing among international actors.
Strategic deficits and limited resources
In fact, limited resources are the key weakness of the U.S. strategy to maintain its position in the Middle East. What is happening is not a change in U.S. tactics in the region or in devices as much as it means repositioning its regional "strategic" standing, abandoning the region's centrality in its foreign policy, and betting on the stability of its relations with its allies.
The most recent example is its relationship with Israel. Although the majority of the literature that discussed the U.S. retreat from the Middle East agree exclude Washington’s policy toward Tel Aviv, the administration of Biden's position toward recent military escalation in the Gaza Strip was striking. Biden showed less inclination this time to give greater weight to Tel Aviv, and it was clear that the U.S. pressure to end the war was contrary to the wishes of the Israeli military establishment that was seeking to go on fighting in order to preserve its reputation and assert its victory. This U.S. policy puts U.S. partnerships with countries in the region -- including Israel and the Gulf states -- in doubt and adds to its leaders' sense of uncertainty about future U.S. positions.
Even with the fact that it is still the most militarily deployed country in the Middle East, this deployment is diminishing over time. U.S. forces in six countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates) reached 76,000 in 2008, equivalent to 16% of all U.S. troops deployed outside their borders, falling to less than 10,000 in 2019, only about 4%.
These trends are growing along with a significant economic burden -- the U.S. public debt exceeded $23 trillion and is expected to rise to about 150% of GDP in 2030 -- and a diminished U.S. desire for dominance is confirmed by a December 2019 Pew Research Center poll, which found that 73% of Americans disapprove of the use of military force and support diplomacy as an ideal option.
It makes sense, therefore, to judge that the United States has a strategic deficit in the Middle East, compounded by the prevailing view of its participation in the region as a waste of resources. This view is contrary to the history of competition among the great powers for leadership, as the United States has always dealt in its strategic race with the Soviet Union in accordance with the concept of “strategic competition zones”, and this was tangible in defining the Middle East as a region of strategic interests in U.S. politics and an indispensable spot of influence, applying Eisenhower's doctrine in 1957 and Carter's in 1980 which stated that “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America and will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
Once approaching the US leadership and hegemony based on the previous concept of "strategic competition zones," the scale of the erosion of U.S. hegemony on the world stage as opposed to growing Chinese influence in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa will be evident. On the economic front, China's trade with Middle Eastern countries outperformed its US counterpart in 2007, particularly in bilateral trade with U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey.
Accordingly, limiting the U.S. strategy to the Middle East to two factors (counter-terrorism and straightening Iranian behavior) is not partly due to the diminishing geopolitical importance of the region, nor to the massive discoveries of oil shale and the lack of need for Middle East oil, as former U.S. President Donald Trump said in January 2020, but mostly because of the difficulty of stopping China's massive access to the region given limited U.S. economic resources capable of supporting a global strategy similar to those it pursued while competing with the Soviet Union. It has therefore become difficult to define a real and clear U.S. strategy as much as a set of policies aimed at preserving its reputation as a superpower that wishes to withdraw victoriously -- or so imagined.
Last month, President Joe Biden announced that the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan would be on September 11 -- the anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings in New York and other locations -- adding that this era of history will finally be closed. The withdrawal was justified on the basis of a practically incomplete agreement with the Taliban, and on that it is appropriate for the United States -- which during its war in Afghanistan spent nearly $2 trillion and lost some 448 deaths and more than 20,700 casualties -- as it points to a shift in its leadership position and in the ideology of US hegemony and exceptionalism. The conflict with the Taliban was not the only drive for intervention there, but the dynamic shifts in the country’s surroundings played a role in shaping its geopolitical importance to a superpower such as the United States, including the presence of the world's largest human population around its borders, as well as its mediation of the world's largest stockpile of nuclear weapons and three of the world's great powers (Russia, China, and India).
Afghanistan has therefore always been a target for forces willing to lead, such as the Soviet Union. Today, it is particularly important for China after the U.S. withdrawal, as Beijing has reportedly made promises to the Taliban concerning large investments in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.
Based on all of the above, it can be said that there is a microcosm that summarizes the ideas discussed in the article above, through understanding of which we can chart the future course of the Middle East and see its impact on the next world order.
Since the 1990s, the United States has pursued a strategy to trap Russia in "strategic competition zones" to prevent the return of a power previously enjoyed by the Soviet Union. This strategy focused on: First, forming a geographical cordon that separates Russia from the West by extending NATO and EU influence and expanding their membership. Secondly, surrounding it in the Middle East through US intervention to change political regimes in Iraq and Libya, after which it was widely believed that the crisis in Syria would make Russia lost its last relations inherited from the Soviet Union. But the news was bad for Washington, as Moscow rearranged its presence in the region, in accordance with vital and pragmatic interests rather than on traditional diplomatic relations.
This example shows how the United States has failed to combat Russia's economically and militarily limited ascent, compared to its efforts to rebalance China in the South China Sea, with the latter enjoying a flexibility and significant activity to enter strategic competition areas around the world, particularly in the Middle East.
Thus, for many enthusiasts and those who are confident of Biden's ability to bring the United States back to the leadership of the world stage, they must be aware of the fact that Washington has been repeatedly retreating as an actor on the most important issues that have posed security and humanitarian challenges to the world order, most of which we find in the Middle East, and that there is further decline in the United States' participation on the world stage.